Detroit residents can respond to the census by phone, mail or online. (Photo by Ralph Jones)

Less than half of Detroit has responded to Census 2020 and a pandemic — followed by a state stay-in-place order — have made Detroit, already one of the hardest cities in the nation to count, nearly impossible to reach. 

Yet city officials are determined to get residents to respond. 

“Every Detroiter who does not fill out their census form costs their neighbors $50,000 in these vital services over the next decade,” said Victoria Kovari, who is leading Detroit’s 2020 Census effort. “At a time like this, our community needs every resource it can get and we all owe it to each other to take 10 minutes to make a difference in our community for 10 years.”

This month, the city deepened its high-stakes battle. So far, workers have made 60,000 phone calls, distributed 4,000 lawn signs, created 100,000 postcards and hired 11 community groups to knock on 200,000 doors, said Kovari, who described the effort as a “slow slog.” 

While households across Detroit have received invitations to complete the 2020 Census since mid-March, nearly 52 percent of residents hadn’t responded as of Wednesday, even though this is the first year that residents can respond by mail, online or by telephone. 

In an effort to increase response rate, the census bureau has also launched the Mobile Questionnaire Assistance (MQA) program, in addition to its door-to-door canvassing. Representatives will be where Detroiters are  —  beauty and barber shops, grocery stores, food banks, laundromats, restaurants, unemployment offices, places of worship and libraries  — to encourage people to respond.

Filling out the census is a civic duty, officials say, and the decennial census aims to count every person in the country. City officials say that now more than ever, it’s vital to have a proper count because the numbers will affect the city and local budgets for the next decade.

Ford and Hartmun canvass the Pingree Park neighborhood on the east side of Detroit.

Detroit underfunded and at risk

Black people, non-English-speaking immigrants and children under 5 are the hardest to count, say researchers like Diana Elliott at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit economic and social policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

What’s more is that Black communities across the United States have been undercounted for decades, which especially puts Detroit at risk for being undercounted and underfunded as the city is almost 80 percent Black, according to the Census Bureau. 

“The issue with Detroit and places like Detroit is that the people who are easier to count tend to be older, tend to be white, tend to be homeowners and tend to be more socioeconomically advantaged — but you don’t necessarily have that population in Detroit,” Elliott explained. “That puts Detroit at greater risk just because of the demographics.”

Detroit lags Michigan’s overall response rate of 68.3 percent, one of the highest in the country. The national response rate to the census is 62.1 percent.

Currently, the census is mostly being pushed out as an online response because it is a cost-effective and rapid way to receive data, according to Elliott. 

An online response is a viable option for people who are easier to count but a different scenario exists in Detroit. High rates of vacancy and poverty will mean that Detroit will have a harder time getting people to respond on their own. 

Ford talks with Detroit residents about the 2020 Census. (Photos by Ralph Jones)

Detroit’s response matters

Since 2000, response to the census has dwindled. Fewer Detroit residents participate yet the census provides $675 million in federal aid to low-income residents and will help determine the city’s political influence. 

According to the Census Bureau, in 2000, about 70 percent of Detroit residents turned in Census forms and in 2010 the response fell to 64 percent, as the population dropped from 951,307 to 713,777. The amount of federal funding Detroit receives will be based on reported population. Almost every government program is budgeted based on the census, as well as each state’s representation in Congress.

Federal funding could be critical for the city of Detroit as revenue plummets because of the pandemic. 

Funding will affect systems and programs such as:

  • Housing
  • Education and school lunches
  • Transportation
  • Employment
  • Health care and Medicaid
  • Public policy
  • Food services
  • Road and highway maintenance
  • Emergency services 
  • Workforce training and employment

Numbers from each state are also used to redraw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts as well as determine how many seats in Congress each state gets.

What to expect

The census is a nine-question survey to count everyone in the household regardless of immigration status, income or age. 

For Detroit residents worried about not having legal status or privacy issues, according to the city website, all personal information answered for the census will not be shared with anyone for 72 years. Moreover, no one can access that information in any capacity — not the government, insurance companies, the court system, landlords or social services. 

“They’re not going to ask immigration status, which is awesome,” said Raquel Garcia, executive director at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, a local organization that partnered with the city to canvass low-response neighborhoods. “And if someone is really concerned, they can just put their first initial and last name or the first initial of their first and last name. They can do that for all their family members and we’re making time to explain a lot of that at the door.” 

“So many of the programs we rely on every day depend on the census count: Medicaid, meals for seniors and kids, education,” Kovari told BridgeDetroit. “When someone does not respond to the Census, they are giving up over 5,000 in federal tax dollars each year. We can’t afford to keep giving away our money to other cities.”

Detroiters can fill out the census online at, by calling 844-330-2020 or completing the paper form.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you very much for this excellent and important essay about the census count in
    Detroit. In additional to federal revenue sharing, there is state revenue sharing. 10% of
    all sales tax revenue is distributed to Michigan municipalities each year. An undercount
    in Detroit will result in the city getting less than its fair share of tax dollars.
    Where can I find the e-mail address of Bisma Parvez?

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